Butterflies “treat” sick young
Georgia: A new study suggests that Monarch butterflies “treat” their unborn offspring for a parasitic infection by laying the eggs on a plant that fights the illness.
Infected butterflies “prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring,” said Jaap de Roode, an evolutionary biologist from Emory University.
Other studies show evidence that apes and other mammals "self-medicate," but the discovery in insects is new.
Monarch butterflies are known for their spectacular migrations from the U.S. to Mexico each year. They are also known for their striking colors which warn to birds and other predators that the butterfly may be poisonous.
In the caterpillar stage, monarchs eat milkweed plants, some of which include high levels of cardenolides. While the chemicals don’t harm the caterpillars, it makes them toxic to predators, even after they emerge as adults.
De Roode says the Monarchs' parasite might be related to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. These parasites invade young caterpillars, then stay through adulthood. They sap the butterflies' energy, shorten their lives, and sometimes kills them.
females pass on the parasites
through their eggs. De Roode’s
study reveals that infected females,
unlike others, prefer laying their
eggs on toxic milkweed.
“The results are also exciting because the behavior is trans generational,” said Thierry Lefevre, a post doctoral fellow in de Roode’s lab. “While the mother is expressing the behavior, only her offspring benefit.”
The findings also may have
implications for human health, said
Mark Hunter from the University of
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